The week in politics: A gift for National, border botch-ups and bad news for NZ First

6:59 pm on 26 June 2020

By Peter Wilson*.

Analysis - Winston Peters hands National a gift-wrapped opportunity to attack the government, ministers struggle to get the border botch-ups under control and there's been a poll boost for National's new leader this week.

The Beehive

It's been a busy week in politics with its fair share of issues. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Just as Jacinda Ardern's government was doing its best to get a grip on border security, Peters gifted the opposition an opportunity to accuse it of instability and uncertainty.

It's nowhere near "tearing itself apart" as National's leader Todd Muller put it, but it really didn't need another problem as ministers struggled to get the border botch-ups under control.

New Zealand First's refusal to support the Auckland light rail project had been clearly signalled but it was still one of the big political stories of the week. Linking the CBD with the airport was one of Labour's flagship promises and it isn't going to get the go-ahead this parliamentary term, let alone be completed by 2021.

Then there was a problem with the bill designed to sort out the commercial rent problem, which justice minister Andrew Little thought he had cleared up. Peters said the legislation didn't match up with the agreement reached at the cabinet table and it will have to be re-drafted.

National was presented with an opportunity "gift-wrapped with a blue satin bow", the New Zealand Herald's Audrey Young said, and the party gratefully accepted it.

Muller showed opposition hyperbole rolled easily off his tongue and finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith weighed in: "What we're seeing is that at a time of absolute economic crisis, when clarity and leadership is needed from a government, instead we're getting confusion, infighting and instability."

Ardern tried to shrug it off with her usual defence that it was just another week running a coalition government and consensus couldn't always be reached, but transport minister Phil Twyford gave up trying to pretend NZ First wasn't a problem.

"They've got different priorities and different political principles than us," he said.

"Whether you're talking about industrial relations reform, or the capital gains tax, or light rail, New Zealand First, they've got their views about those. I always hoped we'd get them over the line but it wasn't to be."

Peters is doing what he usually does ahead of an election, cracking the whip over the party that leads the government and showing voters that nothing happens unless he decides it will.

He denied that he was blocking Auckland's light rail. "We're just making sure the policy is a sound commercial proposition," he said. "As a fiscal proposition with offshore proprietorship it did not work."

As for the rent bill: "We've said from the word go that we were the party of common sense, and common sense is what you're seeing breaking out all over now."

These unwelcome issues must irritate Ardern, despite her calm exterior, and they came on top of the border security situation that ministers struggled with all week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and deputy Winston Peters.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and deputy Winston Peters. Photo: Pool / Getty Images

The Ministry of Health confirmed that 55 people were granted compassionate exemptions from isolation between alert level 1 beginning on 9 June and exemptions ending on 16 June. Of those, 51 were not tested before they left. They're being chased up and by the end of the week more than 30 had tested negative.

Another opportunity for Muller: "This is a cast iron requirement of the process and it hasn't been happening," he said. "Ministers haven't been assuring themselves of the expected oversight as to who has been tested."

He had a point there. Ministers, in particular health minister David Clark, had clearly not looked sufficiently closely at the operation on the ground. They had accepted assurances from the ministry.

Clark, unsurprisingly, had another bad week. With the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield standing next to him, he told reporters: "The director-general has accepted protocols weren't followed. He has accepted responsibility for that and has set about putting it right."

The minister did not accept responsibility, and his comment caused a public backlash. Muller accused Clark of "appalling behaviour" and National's health spokesman Michael Woodhouse demanded an apology. Clark did not apologise, instead heaping praise on Dr Bloomfield for the excellent work he had done.

Then there was the homeless man debacle. Or perhaps it wasn't a debacle at all because he might not exist. Woodhouse raised it in Parliament the previous week, saying the man had claimed to be a returning resident and had joined the queue at Auckland's Crown Plaza, going on to enjoy two weeks in the four star hotel.

Megan Woods, the minister in charge of isolation facilities, took it seriously. She ordered a team of officials to find out whether it really happened. They examined the records of 1706 people who had been through the hotel and watched hundreds of hours of CCTV.

The homeless man wasn't there. Woods wrote to Woodhouse asking him for some evidence that it actually happened, which wasn't forthcoming. Woodhouse said his information came from a credible source, which means someone told him. He pointed out he had never said the incident was verified.

Dr Bloomfield said it could be an urban myth. Chris Hipkins said it was an urban myth. Shane Jones said it was a shallow attempt to spread confusion and Woodhouse should stack up his "apocryphal story".

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Todd Muller made a respectable entrance in the preferred prime minister stakes on 13 per cent, writes Peter Wilson. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The week ended with a 1News Colmar Brunton poll showing a nine-point swing between Labour and National. National was up nine points to 38 per cent and Labour was down nine to 50 percent.

No real surprises there, a new leader usually gets a boost and National had sunk to unrealistic lows under Simon Bridges. Labour's stratospheric rating during the height of the Covid-19 crisis was never going to last, but it was still an excellent result achieved despite the border fiasco.

It has to be remembered that National is the largest party in Parliament by a significant margin, and to keep it that way Muller has a great deal of work ahead. In the preferred prime minister stakes Ardern was still fireproof on 54 percent and Muller made a respectable entrance on 13 percent.

The poll was a shocker for NZ First. The party's support was down to 1.8 per cent, putting it below ACT which was on 3.1 percent. Peters' party historically does better on election night than polls predict, but below 2 percent is red zone territory where people can start thinking a party isn't worth voting for.

Peters rejected the result in the strongest terms.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, with 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as NZ Newswire's parliamentary bureau chief.

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